GOP quits public policy

Evidence reveals that today's conservatives have been historically bad at writing bills or developing an agenda

Published April 23, 2013 6:07PM (EDT)

John Boehner and Eric Cantor        (AP)
John Boehner and Eric Cantor (AP)

Are Republicans even trying? There's good evidence to suggest they are not.

While I’ve been saying that the GOP is broken and hopelessly dysfunctional, Rachel Maddow has come up with a new name for part of that dysfunction: Republicans are “post-policy.” To some extent, that’s because they’ll simply oppose whatever Barack Obama proposes, but there’s also an even more interesting aspect of it that they simply have given up on and lost the capacity for developing policy ideas.

And, no, it’s not just because they are conservatives and conservatives are inherently less likely to have policy ideas. A look at the evidence will demonstrate this.

Here’s the story: Over the last couple of decades, majority parties in the House of Representatives have taken to reserving the very first bill numbers for their party’s agenda. Normally, bills are just numbered in order, when they are introduced: H.R. 637 is usually the bill introduced just after H.R. 636 and just before H.R. 638. But that’s just custom, and at some point a new custom evolved to save H.R. 1 through H.R. 5, and then through H.R. 10, for important party agenda bills.

Which leads to the embarrassing fact that no one seems to have noticed about this year’s House Republicans. Over 100 days into the current Congress, their agenda is … almost completely empty.

In fact, of the 10 reserved slots, there’s only one bill filed. That’s H.R. 3, a bill to force the building of the Keystone XL pipeline. Even that is pretty minimal – it’s far more of a symbolic position than it is an energy policy. And even that took until March 15 to introduce. But at least it’s a real bill, and to their credit it is a substantive measure, even if it’s not an overall energy policy.

Beyond that, Republicans have announced that H.R. 1 is reserved for a tax reform bill. There is, however, no bill, at least not so far.

For the rest of them, and for that matter for H.R. 1, nothing. All you get is “Reserved for the Speaker.”

That’s pathetic. It wasn’t true two years ago, when the new Republican majority took over in 2009. By the end of the 112thCongress, which was hardly a high achiever, Republicans had filed bills for nine of the 10 reserved spots. H.R. 1 that year was for continuing appropriations, and was filed on Feb. 11. H.R. 2 was to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and was introduced on Jan. 5. In fact, by April 2011, eight of the 10 bills had been dropped into the hopper.

Now, to be fair, Democrats in the 111thCongress only used two of the 10 spots. But both were introduced in January, and in fact both (the stimulus and S-CHIP expansion) had become law by this point. And at any rate, surely no one would argue that the Democrats in 2009 didn’t have an agenda.

But go back further, and it’s obvious how unusual the current House is.

In 2007, the incoming Democrats had their six-bill agenda; all were introduced in January.

The Republicans in 2005? Their energy bill, filed on April 18, was the third slot used.

In 2003, Republicans would eventually use eight of the 10 bills; three were introduced in February, and one in early April.

Republicans were in the majority in 2001, and had seven bills in the sequence written by the end of March.

Before that, having 10 bills introduced by the majority party right away was pretty much standard procedure; it took Republicans until March 1 in 1999, but the five previous Houses achieved it on opening day of the Congress (although in two instances, for whatever reason, H.R. 8 went to the minority party).

It’s clear that, for whatever reason, majority parties are less likely to use these spots right away than they were in the 1990s. But still – just one bill so far, and a fairly unimportant one at that, is really a shockingly miserable performance.

The conclusion: They just can’t be bothered.

My guess is that the Republican-aligned partisan press is just so easy for Republican politicians that they’ve all become lazy. If all you have to do to be a favorite guest on Fox News or on syndicated conservative talk radio is to mutter something vague about Benghazi and make a teleprompter joke, what’s the incentive of doing the hard work of actually writing a bill?

At any rate, this sort of thing just isn’t normal. It’s another good indicator of a broken party, and good evidence that they really just don’t care about public policy very much.

By Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

MORE FROM Jonathan Bernstein

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Congress Conservatives House Of Representatives Legislation Republican Party